Marfa Lights

marfa lightsmarfa lights viewing area

About 20 miles outside the small far west Texas town of Alpine there is the even smaller town of Marfa, Texas. For a place of roughly two thousand residents, Marfa has much with which to recommend itself: it’s the Presidio County seat; notable movies such as No Country for Old Men and There Will Be Blood have been made in and around Marfa; in the old Hotel Paisano you can still see where Rock Hudson and Elizabeth Taylor stayed during the 1956 filming of Giant. Donald Judd, the great minimalist artist moved to Marfa from New York City in 1971 and the Chinati Foundation still oversees its expansive local collection of works from Judd and his contemporaries.

All well and good. But to most people Marfa is best known for one thing and one thing only: the mysterious Marfa Lights.

For over a hundred years local residents have claimed on clear evenings to see shimmering balls of light on the distant desert horizon southeast of town, flickering, darting, floating, sometime splitting into twos and threes. The lights are unpredictable but persistent and have become such a tourist attraction that Presidio County has shrewdly built the Marfa Lights View Park, a modern viewing pavilion on the highway nine miles outside of town.

Late one recent frosty evening at that very View Park my family and I peered into the desert in search of the mystery. Sure enough, out in the distance: a single orange pinpoint of light.

“There! It moved. Did you see it?”

Several were certain that the light was moving from side to side but in the largely moonless night it was impossible to determine any reference point in the distant darkness with which to confirm it. I chose skepticism instead, partially just to be contrary but also the glowing dot appeared to me more like the fixed porch light from some far remote ranch house.

But as the believers in the group expressed their conviction with more and more excitement I gradually began to think I saw some movement as well. Having come many miles into the middle of nowhere and several hours toward the middle of the night, I felt a genuine longing to forfeit my incredulity and experience the fabled Marfa Lights.

In the end I can’t be certain what it is I saw. I still think it was an isolated porch light in the vastness of the desert dark. Any perceived movement was likely just the result of collective confirmation bias brought on by a suggestively placed “viewing station”. But I do know this, there was something exciting and special to be all together as a family in that place peering into the black and encouraging each other to see something mysterious, unexplained and a little scary.

It is no great thing, of course, to see what you’ve been encouraged by others to see. We often count that as a vice not a virtue. But if there is a time when it is acceptable, then it is surely at the passing into a New Year. Marfa reminded me that it invigorates and ennobles us to stand together staring into the unknown and New Year’s Day is our annual “viewing station”. Each January 1 just for a moment we allow ourselves to gaze into the darkness of a yet unlit pathway with family, friends and colleagues, expectant and wondering together what awaits its traversing.

Maybe I saw the Marfa Lights and maybe I didn’t. All I know is that I was nourished by the shared experience with the people I love. As we navigate 2015 here’s hoping that we all have occasional roadside viewing stations within which to wonder and hope. It is how we move forward.

Happy New Year from The Stubborn Glebe.

Golden Rule and Golden Thread

2753816333_9c6d15e24c_oWhen I was running a large corporate sales organization I tried to draw the subtle but important distinction for my team between focusing on the customer and cultivating the focus of the customer. The former generally meant compiling information about a client. The latter, more difficult, was understanding the client’s circumstances and aspirations so thoroughly that we could then turn and view our own company through his eyes.  It was not just the acquisition of data but a complete change in our perspective; only the very best salespeople had the energy and empathy to do it.

In a weird juxtaposition, I have been forced to consider this distinction frequently in the last few weeks as I watched the no-indictment announcement in the Michael Brown case, also as I saw the video replays of Eric Garner’s choke-hold arrest and death, and yet again as I read the heated public debate and watched the protests that followed. It troubles me that I may very well have accumulated plenty of information about those events, but as a middle-aged, upper middle class white male I persist in understanding so little about my fellow citizens in Ferguson and Staten Island.

For many of us our first complex moral precept as children was the Golden Rule. In the Christian expression and in many other faith traditions it is often stated as “do unto others as you would have them do unto you”.  It is a wonderful standard but it presupposes one very important precondition, that we are able to view the others’ circumstances empathetically from their perspective and within their circumstances. In practice that is quite difficult.

For instance, what I want “done unto me” is to have life’s game played fairly and by clear rules. Among the things I value are social order and propriety. Of course, I can afford to hold that viewpoint because, by virtue of my race, gender, family circumstances, social status, and upbringing, the game has been designed for me to continue winning. Law enforcement is therefore my natural partner, so in important visceral ways it is difficult for me to watch the national protests against the police.

I don’t hold to the illusion that society is always just, but I do firmly maintain two great assumptions. The first is what Lord Sankey famously called the Golden Thread of common law: the presumption of innocence. The second assumption is due process, that very American guarantee contained in both the Fifth and Fourteenth Amendments. My faith in these two conditions enables my confidence in the police and the justice system

But what if, through some unsanctioned racial practices of civic institutions, or just the repeated personal bigotries of individuals, I had reason to believe that neither the presumption of innocence nor due process were regularly extended to me, my race, or my class? How might I respond? How would I interpret a police cruiser coming down my street at night? What response would I have to a police stop and street interrogation if I felt barred from the generous constitutional protections that I now enjoy?

Those questions are not designed to somehow lionize Michael Brown, Eric Garner and the protestors, nor to demonize Darren Wilson or the Staten Island police. Nor do I want to rush to one side or the other in the political debate. In fact, I hope for joint insights from within the coalition of historical conservatives and classical liberals who share a common sensitivity to the tension between the extent of government reach and the regard for personal liberty.

But since my natural disposition is with law enforcement, I realize better than I have in a long while that I must train myself to look at society through the eyes of citizens who have no confidence in the civic protections that, by virtue of my own class and color, I can and do take for granted. Until I can accomplish that I pledge to resist bloviating on what is right or wrong about race relations in America today.